Wednesday, December 31, 2014

1st Rhode Island Cavalry at Middleburg

      This summer I came across some exciting cavalry narratives researching the cavalry Battles at Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville in June, 1863.  The stories from the 1st Rhode Island were particularly compelling.  They were however, peripheral to my intent, which was to focus on the actions of the 3rd US Artillery in the fighting that week, - so I didn't include much about them on my website.

     But it might be enjoyable this time of year, to read the adventures of Captain George Bliss, and others during what proved to be a disastrous campaign of neglect for the First Rhode Island.  The tale is long, so I'll offer it in two parts.

by George N. Bliss

     At the request of many of my comrades I write this paper to correct the errors of other Northern writers upon the events of these two days.

     In the Campaigns of Stuart’s Cavalry, by Major H. B. McClellan, pages 303, 304, and 305, the deeds of the First Rhode Island Cavalry at this time are set forth in words as accurate as they are complimentary, but this gallant Confederate officer cannot afford the space for details as embraced in the work of our Society.

     The following extracts contain some errors of Northern historians:

     History of the Civil War in America, Compte De Paris, Vol. III, page 494 :
It is the movement of Colonel Duffié by way of Thoroughfare Gap, which was accomplished in the midst of the greatest dangers and with wonderful daring, but also with heavy loss, which finally led to the retreat of Munford.  Duffié, with his two hundred and eighty men, had unexpectedly made his appearance in front of Chambliss’ brigade, but he had succeeded in disguising his numerical weakness from the Confederates, who were entirely worn out, and little desirous, undoubtedly, to bring on an action; so that while Chambliss was under the impression that he had a superior force to deal with, Duffié, stealing away in the night, was rapidly marching upon Middleburg.
Chancellorsville and Gettysburg by Doubleday, page 102:
Colonel Duffié’s division started from Centreville for Middleburg, by way of Thoroughfare Gap, but finding the enemy (W.H.F. Lee’s brigade) were already in the Gap, they went around through Hopewell Gap and kept on to Middleburg, which Duffié reached about 9:30 A.M.
     The battle of Bunker Hill was upon the 17th and that of Waterloo on the 18th of June.  It was the fortune of the First Rhode Island Cavalry to be in action upon both anniversaries in the year 1863, and the history of the regiment for these two days is one of disaster, but not of dishonor.

     Early in the morning of June 17, 1863, the following order was received:
     Col. A.N. Duffié First Rhode Island Cavalry:
You will proceed with your regiment from Manassas Junction by the way of Thoroughfare Gap, to Middleburg; there you will camp for the night, and communicate with the headquarters of the Second Cavalry Brigade.  From Middleburg you will proceed to Union; thence to Snickersville; from Snickersville to Percyville; thence to Wheatland, and, passing through Waterford, to Nolan’s Ferry, where you will join your brigade.

     The day was bright with sunshine, and the regiment, numbering two hundred and eighty sabers, took the road without a thought of the future.  At Thoroughfare Gap privates Duxbury, Lee and Teft, of Company H, were in the advance; Duxbury meets a Confederate cavalry picket, and fires his carbine but misses his enemy, at that time on a full gallop in retreat.  A few shots came from the woods, but our skirmishers soon drove the pickets back upon a larger force.  

      “There are six hundred of them, I think,” said Duxbury to Captain Chase; “There are at least twice as many as there are of us.”  In the skirmish three of our horses were killed and several horses were wounded, but none of the troopers were hit. 

     Having passed through the Gap and reached the desired road, Duffié turned to the right and pressed forward towards Middleburg, some fifteen miles away.  In thus obeying orders, Duffié left behind him W. H. F. Lee’s brigade, under command of Col. J.R. Chambliss, estimated as twelve hundred men, while at Aldie Gap, fifteen miles further north in the mountain range, now enclosing the Rhode Island troops on the east, Fitz Lee’s Brigade consisting of the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Virginia, were that day to hold their position against our entire cavalry corps under command of General Pleasanton.

     General Robertson’s brigade, ten thousand strong, was at Rector’s Cross Roads, eight miles west of Middleburg, in which town General Stuart, commanding these three Confederate brigades of cavalry, was enjoying the hospitality of his friends, protected only by a body guard of three companies.  At 4 P.M. the First Rhode Island struck Stuart’s pickets, and at once charged them, driving Stuart and his staff out of Middleburg on the gallop, escaping capture only by reason of the superior speed of their fresh horses.  At this time Fitz Lee’s brigade had been engaged at Aldie, only five miles away, for two hours with Kilpatrick’s troopers, holding the Gap against charge after charge of our brave cavalry men.

     General Stuart thought the force that had penetrated to the very centre of his troopers must be a large one, and at once sent orders to Roberson’s, Fitz Lee’s, and W.H.F. Lee’s brigades to concentrate upon Middleburg.  Duffié has obeyed orders; he is in Middleburg where he is ordered to remain for the night; he does not know that at Aldie, five miles in his rear, Colonel Munford, commanding Fitz Lee’s Brigade, is holding our whole Cavalry Corps at bay.  A movement of the First Rhode Island on Aldie would have struck the Confederate rear and changed defeat to victory, but this is imagination, not history, and in accordance with our orders Capt. Frank Allen, with two men, was sent to Aldie with a dispatch for Pleasanton, and I know of no better description of his ride then the following official report:

Report of Capt. Frank Allen, First Rhode Island Cavalry.
Alexandria, Va., June 22, 1863.
Sir:  I have the honor to report that about 5 p.m. on the evening of the 17th instant I was sent from Middleburg, where the regiment was then engaged with the enemy, to carry a dispatch to General Kilpatrick at Aldie, accompanied by 2 men.  I first attempted to proceed by the main road, but was halted and fired upon by a body of the enemy, who said they were the Fourth Virginia Cavalry.  I then returned toward Middleburg, and, leaving the road, attempted to make my way across the country.  I found the fields and woods in every direction full of bodies of the enemy.  By exercising the greatest care, I succeeded in making my way through them to Little River.

Here I encountered 5 of the enemy, and forced them to give me passage.  Following the river down, I struck the main road about 1 mile from Aldie, and, by inquiry, learned that our pickets were on that road.

I reached Aldie, and delivered my dispatch to General Kilpatrick at 9 p.m.  General Kilpatrick informed me that his brigade was so worn out that he could not send any re-enforcements to Middleburg, but that he would report the situation of our regiment to General Gregg.  Returning, he said that General Gregg had gone to state the facts to General Pleasonton, and directed me to remain at Aldie until he heard from General Pleasonton.  I remained, but received no further orders.
Respectfully submitted.
Frank Allen,
Captain First Rhode Island Cavalry.

Col. A.N. Duffie.

       Colonel Duffié posted strong pickets at barricades across the roads leading out of Middleburg on the south, west and north, and stationed his reserve on the road leading towards Aldie at the east of the town.  For three hours their regiment held undisputed possession of the place, but at seven o’clock in the evening General Stuart returned with the Fourth and Fifth North Carolina Cavalry, about one thousand strong; the men at the barricades fought bravely but were soon outflanked and driven back upon the reserve. 

     Warned by the attack on the outposts, Colonel Duffié ordered companies G and F, numbering about sixty, to dismount, tie their horses to trees in the grove, which at that time formed a line behind a stone wall that bounded one side of the road.  By this time it was quite dark, and as the enemy charged towards us in column, the first notice they had of the ambuscade was the discharge of sixty carbines, when four rebels were abreast of each gun.  Horses and men fell in confusion, and the rebels retreated in disorder under a hot fire from the revolvers of the men who had just emptied their carbines.  

     The rebel officers could be heard rallying their men for another charge, which was soon made and as soon repulsed.  Again their officers were heard saying, “Now, boys, form once more; we’ll give ‘em hell this time; we will sweep every Yankee from the face of the earth,”  and a third time they charged and were again hurled back shattered and torn. 

     While this fighting was in progress I was with the remaining men of the regiment, mounted and facing the enemy in the woods, a few yards from the left of our line of dismounted men ready to charge on any force that might pass the ambuscade. After the last charge it was evident that the rebels had learned something, and they commenced to form a line out-flanking the road instead of trying another charge in column along the road.  Maj. P.M. Farrington sent Lieut. J.M. Fales to report to Colonel Duffié that the enemy were about to deploy in the fields and attack his right flank and rear, and to ask for orders. 

      Lieutenant Fales found that the regiment had moved, and followed the retiring column two miles before overtaking Duffié, and the Colonel said to him, “Stay with the regiment; it is of no use to go back, you will be captured.” 

     It is claimed that Colonel Duffié sent orders to Major Farrington to fall back from the wall, mount and join the regiment, but that in the darkness and confusion somebody blundered, and the brave men who had thrice repulsed the enemy were left to meet their fate alone.  Major Farrington mounted his men after he had heard the rebel officers give the order “Cease firing, dismount and go into those woods,” and attempted to join the regiment; but at this time a mounted force of rebel cavalry had entered the woods, and Captain Chase, after joining his men to a Confederate column, supposing it to be the First Rhode Island Cavalry, did not discover his mistake until called upon to surrender. Warned by the loud summons for surrender given to Captain Chase, Major Farrington with two officers and twenty-three men moved off a short distance into the woods, where they dismounted and remained concealed twenty-four hours within gun-shot of large forces of the rebels until the advance of our cavalry corps from Aldie gave them the opportunity to rejoin the Union troops.

     Colonel Duffié, with what remained of the regiment, numbering now less than two hundred, retreated at a walk a little over two miles, and went into camp in the woods, where we halted under arms without unsaddling horses until daybreak.  By this time there was no soldier so dull as not to understand the desperate situation of the regiment.

      We had left behind us at Thoroughfare Gap a force of the enemy larger than our own.  At Middleburg we had learned that a large force of the enemy had passed through that day going towards Aldie and we were only two miles distant, at most, from the hostile force five times our own number in strength and by which we had been driven from the town we had been ordered to hold.  With the Bull Run Mountains on the east and the Confederates in our front at every other point in the compass, we were hiding in the woods, knowing that the rising sun would betray us to an overwhelming force of the enemy moving upon us from all directions.  No fires were allowed and no talking was permitted except in so low a tone of voice as to amount to whispering, but the thought was universal and freely expressed that our only hope was to move at once and charge through the enemy’s lines in the night.  Had any native born officer been in command the regiment would, without doubt, have cut its way out that night and could not have met in so doing, greater disaster than was to befall it on the morrow.  Colonel Duffié was a Frenchman, he had received positive orders and thought it his duty to obey them.  In a letter written afterwards he says,

“I could certainly have saved my regiment in the night, but my duty as a soldier and as Colonel obliged me to be faithful to my orders. During those moments of reflection, and knowing that my regiment was being sacrificed, contemplating all this through more than five hours, my heart was bleeding in seeing the lives of those men, whom I had led so many times, sacrificed through the neglect and utter forgetfulness of my superior officers; but in the midst of my grief I found some consolation, beholding the manner in which the Rhode Island boys forth.”

     Just before day I received orders from Colonel Duffié to go on foot outside the woods in the direction of the road to Thoroughfare Gap and see if I could discover any signs of the enemy.  I obeyed the order and remained in the open fields until the increasing light of the opening day gave me an opportunity to see the road for some distance, but saw nothing of the enemy and so reported to Colonel Duffié.   My report was hardly made before shots from the enemy were heard fired upon our pickets facing towards Middleburg. 

     The regiment was at once ordered to mount and we moved out into the road in column of fours, my company was at the head of the regiment facing towards the south on the same road I had shortly before been scouting on foot.  As we were then with our backs towards the enemy that had fired upon our pickets, the order was given “Fours right about”  I had given the first part of the order,  “Fours right about,” and was on the point of finishing it with “March!:   when I discovered a force of rebel cavalry charging upon us not more than seventy-five yards away.  Pointing my saber towards the enemy I at once gave the order to charge, and just at that moment the rebel officer leading the charge leveled his pistol and fired at me with so good an aim that the bullet struck my saber blade, and glancing, drew blood on my right arm, the sensation being as though my arm had been struck smartly with a whip.  At that moment I saw that Colonel Duffié was on the opposite side of the first set of fours, and he said, “Go ahead boys, charge!”  but his tone and manner was that of none having no hope of success.   

     The men wavered, broke, and jumped their horses over a stone wall into a wheat-field on the east side of the road, and, through the waving wheat, the regiment rushed in confusion with the rebels close after them.  We had passed through the wheat-field and by the farmer’s house, who, reckless of danger, and without thought of the flying bullets, stood on his piazza cursing the soldiers as their horses trampled under foot his lusty grain, when I heard an order form Colonel Thompson, “Captain Bliss, halt!   Rally the men.  We have gone far enough.”  This order I obeyed at once, and found it hard at first to get the men to stop their retreat, and face the enemy, but as soon as I had six men in line facing the rebels the rest of the regiment came into line of battle like the snapping of a whip.  The rebels were stopped by this move and opened fire upon us with carbines, and they were so near that when the Confederate officer said to his men, “Let’s give them a saber charge,” every soldier of the First Rhode Island heard it, and when I shouted back in defiance, “That is just what we want,” there were loud demands in our ranks of  “Let us charge.”  

      The order to charge was given at once and we had the pleasure of seeing the same men that had charged us running away through the same wheat field, and of feeling that our disgrace was in some measure removed.  We were halted in the wheat-field, where a line of battle was formed, and we counted off by fours in each rank.  The rebels we had driven retreated in the directions from which our pickets had been fired upon a short time before.  Lieut. James M. Fales, who was captured while we were retreating through this same field, says, in his Prison Life, No. 15, second series, page 9 :  

 “After going about an eighth of a mile from the wheat-field, where I was captured, I saw a force of about five thousand rebel cavalry, and thought that my regiment, on that morning, not more than two hundred strong, would be annihilated, and to this day it seems wonderful to me that so many as one hundred succeeded in cutting their way into the Union lines.”

To Be Continued...

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Searching For Love...

     The main pages of have been re-Vamped!  There is a new structure to the pages with better consistency, and more accurate and detailed information in the ‘Outline’ history;   ie: pages ‘1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, and After.  There is even a splash of color, (red) in the new headings.

     If you Liked the old website, “Thirteenth Massachusetts Volunteers,” ( and I know I did )  -- you’ll LOVE the new site because now it has a SEARCH function.
     A reader made a request for the search function quite a while ago and this is the result of that request.  The Search Function  is peryl based, so when you enter a simple search term, a list of pages containing the searched for item appears, with the number of times that item appears on the page.

When you search, try to keep it simple, for instance, type in the search term ‘Leonard’ for Colonel Leonard, or ‘canal’ instead of C&O canal.

You can even search for Love, if you want.  I did and quite a few hits on the ‘Darnestown’ page showed up. What’s up with that?

     You can try being more specific in your search if you know what your looking for, and you might get some hits, like ‘George Bigelow’ instead of ‘Bigelow’ but try using the single term if you come up empty handed.

     The site map page was originally intentioned to give visitors a good idea of what was on the site, but this feature offers a little more assistance if you can’t find what you want there.

     If you have visited the website in the past your browser may have cached the old pages, the following information is for you:

    You may find yourself moving between older and newer pages when you navigate the site.  The new pages have RED headings, the old pages have BLACK headings.  The new SITE MAP page is improved and easy to notice because of the new menu at the top of the page, - encased in a grey box.

     The Home page however, once updated should not revert back to the old version, because the old file is deleted.

      If you have trouble and are bouncing back and forth between old and new, (like I was), remember to hit REFRESH in your browser when ever you find yourself on an older page.  Or navigate BACK to the home page, where all the links are correct.

      The new pages include, HOME, ABOUT US, WHATS NEW, SEARCH, LINKS, SITE MAP and the outline history, 1861, 1862, 1863 etc. 

      The detail pages are the same for now, but you MUST hit REFRESH in your browser window when you visit a detail page in order for the new navigation menu links to work. (ie: 'Return To History'  & 'Return to Site Map')

     So, there may still be quite a few kinks in the system for a while, so please be patient.  You can contact me if things aren’t working out.  (With the website, not your love life.)  I'm trying to keep aware of any problems but its not always apparent what they are.

Here's the link to the Search Page, which should get you inside the new navigation: